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Humility at its most radiant

Two Renaissance masters, from Europe's north and south, are showcased in exhibitions that are lessons in serenity.

November 20, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

New York — VINCENT VAN GOGH is the marquee name for the fall art museum season now in full swing here. Surprisingly, the large survey of his drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art marks the first time his work in charcoal, watercolor and pen and ink has been brought together in such abundance. Unsurprisingly, the galleries are filled with eager visitors.

However engaging these drawings certainly are, the real artistic excitement in New York's museums this fall will be found elsewhere. Two exhibitions of Renaissance painting are, like the Van Gogh drawing show, virtually unprecedented. And neither is likely to be repeated anytime soon.

Fra Angelico, the early 15th century Florentine friar and religious painter, and Hans Memling, the late 15th century Germanic artist who lived in the Flemish coastal city of Brugge, both made art before canvas became the standard painting support used by Europeans. They painted instead on wooden panels. Famously susceptible to changes in humidity and temperature, panel paintings pose conservation problems that often prevent them from being loaned.

At the Met, "Fra Angelico," which continues through Jan. 29, includes 67 panels by the master. At the Frick Collection, "Memling's Portraits" (through Dec. 31) brings together 20, including nearly two-thirds of the known portraits made by the artist. Both shows feature important loans from major collections in Europe and the United States, and both are extraordinary. Together they put a rare focus on fascinating aspects of the Renaissance in southern and northern Europe.

They also lead one to marvel at the vicissitudes of life, both man-made and natural. Advances in technology have made loans of panel paintings more feasible. (At the Frick, one Memling portrait of a woman is enclosed in its own individually climate-controlled frame, like the girl in a bubble.) But during the 500 years since they were made, many of these paintings were subjected to remarkable brutalities.

Altarpieces were dismantled and many individual panels sawed into pieces. Some pictures were cleaned with abrasive chemicals that stripped parts of their top layer of paint. Pigments oxidized over time. The fact that these works remain powerful and compelling in spite of all that is one clear sign of these artists' greatness.

Fra Angelico -- the angelic friar, so eulogized after his 1455 death by a fellow Dominican brother -- has long been regarded as an utterly charming, somewhat provincial purveyor of deeply pious Christian imagery. This show sends that slightly condescending interpretation into the trash bin.

Provincial, ha!

The friar's enduring reputation rests on the large, complex series of frescoes commissioned for the church and cloister of San Marco in 1438 by Cosimo de' Medici, de facto ruler of Florence. Angelico spent four years on the project, painting some murals himself and directing the work of numerous assistants. In the most potent paintings, he managed a seemingly irreconcilable feat: Angelico endowed humility with a sense of monumental grandeur. Holding this contradiction in equilibrium was his great contribution to Renaissance humanism.

The Dominican order was rigorous in abiding by strict vows of poverty, and Angelico's commissions, earned as a successful artist, helped keep the convent going. Meanwhile, the paintings were a means with which to spread Dominican doctrine.

Modest, self-effacing, unpretentious -- Fra Angelico endowed these humble attributes with a measure of gorgeous gravity that made humility seem the most important, beautiful and desirable condition in life.

He did it largely with color. Angelico's panels are painted with tempera, in which ground and powdered pigments are mixed with egg yolk to form a paste that dries into a bright, durable surface. (Have you ever tried to scrape dried egg yolk off a breakfast plate?) The tempera, sometimes diluted with water, was laid on in thin layers. Building up veils of color created deep, rich, jewel-like tones of brilliant hue.

Angelico's sophisticated handling of color is mesmerizing. In a panel that shows St. Catherine and John the Baptist, he sets opposites on the color wheel side by side to create visual drama and optical depth. The red cloak over Catherine's blue robe is veiled in a distinctly orange hue, while the soft pink of John's cloak contrasts with the gentle greenish tint given to his animal-skin garment. These carefully wrought juxtapositions cause the colors to pop; optic volumes of space and mass open up.

A modern reevaluation

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